Not a Coincidence

Part III of III

Dad’s premise in architecture is the importance of structure. The structure becomes an extension of the environment in which it will live, a reflection of what is already created, and an expression of the earth’s beauty through design. I see the parallel in dance which we’ve often talked about together — the discipline, design and ultimate freedom that develops from structure. I understand what it means to give that structure to movement and choreography, to individuals in classes and to kids in our city schools through my work at Danceworks.

Danceworks Performance Company Photo credit: Meredith Watts

Dance under construction: Danceworks Performance Company
Photo credit: Meredith Watts

St. Edmund's under construction

St. Edmund’s under construction

Dad never put his initials on one of his buildings. He never stopped to market his work or even document it chronologically. That’s why I’m doing it now. Much of his work isn’t photographed. If you ask him why not, he’ll say,

“I was always working on the next project.”

He’ll also tell you he prayed a lot. He tried to avoid that last minute pressure by disciplining himself to work on the design during the day. It never worked. It was when he was alone in the office at night, the day before the project was due, that he’d sit down and look at his blank sheet of paper. He didn’t know where the design would come from. He would usually have to be pushed right up to the moment he was committed to meet with the client and then the concept emerged. That moment is still vivid in his mind for every project. –Debbie

I couldn’t help but reflect on the difference between Candella’s approach and Parme’s theory. Candella figured the thrust of the arch had to be resisted with the large buttresses he proposed to add along the sides of the shell. Parme’s theory argued that the thrust remained within the form of the hyperbolic paraboloid shell and therefore no additional buttresses would be needed. All of the thrust came to the support point of the shell.

I designed the buttresses that would receive all the forces out of the concrete shell — which was 85 feet across between the buttresses, 120 feet from tip to tip and three inches thick. Much like the early Roman barrel vaults, we tied the buttresses by connecting them with the post tensioned cables. The tie obviously had to be below the floor-line but the base of the shell was six feet above the floor-line. This created significant forces within the buttresses and in the foundation beneath them. I had sent off copies of the final design to Felix Candella to keep him informed. The buttresses had been poured and the contractor was starting to install the form-work which would support the concrete shell. About this time, I got a note from Candella saying he had looked over what I sent him. It read,

I won’t say it will fall but if it stands it will be a coincidence.

Right after the pouring of the concrete was completed and the 28 day curing period began, there was a family camp from our church at Green Lake, Wisconsin. Dolores and I, with our three children went to the family camp. Needless to say, our prayers during this time were pretty intense. When we got back to Milwaukee the curing period had ended and the form was slowly lowered, stresses checked based on the instrumentation that had been installed, everything was correct and the form was removed.

Mom looking all chic at Green Lake with the other Wenzler building project developing simultaneously

A few weeks later I was on the job overseeing what was going on. The contractor had erected scaffolding under the tip of the shell so they could rub the exposed concrete to give it a finished appearance. While they were doing this I walked up to the tip of the roof and I heard the workman hollering

“Get out! It’s moving! It’s going to fall and collapse!  Get out!

So I got down off the roof and talked to the workman who said it moved every step I took.

Well, just think about it—the shell spans 85 feet, 120 feet tip to tip, is three inches thick. It’s going to be a flexible shape. So I reassured them and left the site.

Confident but needing reassurance, the first phone booth I found, I called Al Parme. I knew that it was structurally sound but I didn’t know how flexible it would be. I told him what I had just discovered and he confirmed everything I had said.

This awareness was important in the detailing of the connection of the nonsupporting walls of the church and the shell.  I designed slip joints in the flashing to allow for movement in the shell due to changes in temperature of the air outside. I had provided a steel pipe column at the mid points of the low side of the shell to control the movement on that side.  This forced all the movement to the high side where I accommodated it with the slip form flashing. This was necessary because the triangular shape formed by the low sides of the shell and the flat roof adjoining, created a triangular space which was glass. It was envisioned that one day this would be stained glass.

St. Edmund's Church 1956

St. Edmund’s Church 1956

I thought back to that critical building committee meeting where I talked about architectural history—especially Gothic which was an expression of the Christian faith for their day. We sought to accomplish that for our day. This church is an expression of the inexpressible mystery of the presence on earth of Jesus, who is more than a prophet but the one and only son of the living Creator God.

Church Interior

St. Edmund’s Interior, 1956


A Concept of Mystery

Part II of III

As I began pursuing knowledge of thin shelled concrete, I started looking for an engineer. I also started to learn as much as I could myself. I learned about a shape that was designed by a Mexican architect Felix Candella, that was doubly curved known as a hyperbolic paraboloid. The name comes from a section through the shape that in one direction gives a pair of hyperpolis and in another direction a parabola.

I kept growing in background and met with a local engineer who said he knew how to do it. As I began to learn more myself, it wasn’t long before I realized my engineer didn’t really know anything about it.  So I was sort of stumped. About this time, the representative of Portland Cement, Carl Roesser, stopped by my office. In those days Portland Cement Association (PCA) had representatives that would visit architects that had problems and Carl visited my office. I discussed my dilemma with him and he said,

“Oh, PCA’s head of advanced engineering, Al Parme, has been working on this very thing. I think you should get down to Chicago to meet him.”

Carl set up an appointment and I did just that. Al was an older man–very friendly and helpful. He showed me work he had been doing on a theory he had been developing with hyperbolic paraboloids. He said that it hadn’t been tested yet but he was sure he was right. So I asked him if he knew of an engineer I could engage to apply his theory. He then asked me,

“What’s your background?”

“I graduated in the architectural engineering program at the University of Illinois.”

“That’s great. You do it. I’ll help you.”

So I reported all this back to the committee at St. Edmund’s, explained how experimental it was but shared also the confidence I had in Al and the PCA.The committee voted to cancel their previous approval and instructed me to proceed with investigating a design with a thin shelled concrete roof.

The next day I got going on the design using thin shelled concrete and contacted Felix Candella in Mexico City who was the only architect known anywhere who had been working with thin shelled forms. He suggested I bring my sketches and come down to meet with him.

When I told Dolores–who was pregnant with our third child John at this point, she said,

“That’s going to be expensive. Where will we get the money?”

I went to the bank and got a loan for my airplane ticket and miscellaneous expenses.

Baby John

Baby John

I remember getting to Mexico City and somehow finding Candella’s office. I introduced myself and showed him the sketches I had made. He pointed out that based on his experience, the changes I’d have to make included adding substantial buttresses along the lower side of the shell. I spent a couple days working on analyzing the engineering based on his theory and in a few days flew back home.

So now I had Felix Candella’s experience with actually building thin shells and Al Parme with a theory that had not yet been tested and the two were significantly different. Using my engineering training to the best of my ability, I analyzed the two approaches.

Boy, that Professor Morgan at Illinois, and what he taught me!  Doing concrete engineering required the use of many handbooks, formulas, etc. Professor Morgan taught that we could understand the stress in a structural form—what was in the steel and what was in the concrete—so that we could first visually see what was going on in a structural form in our minds and then use the handbooks, formulas, etc. That was one of the many reasons why I highly regarded and highly respected Professor N. D. Morgan.

After analyzing the two approaches to the best of my ability, I called Al Parme and told him what I was doing. He told me to come on back down so that we could take a look at it.

I remember so well that by Al’s evaluation based on his theory, there would be no need for the large buttresses Candella said I would have to have.

After spending more time in my office trying to understand the two theories, I concluded that I was sure Al’s was correct. So I called him back again and took another trip to Chicago to explain my thinking.

Al told me that Portland Cement Association was interested in building a model to test his theory and that we would use my building to test it. He explained that PCA would install instrumentation which would evaluate the stress, strain and deflection of all aspects of the structure. After the concrete was poured and had cured a full 28 days, we would slowly lower the form to see how the structure performed. Though the form work was now free of the structure, it was still in place below the structure itself. If there was a problem we could then address it.

I reported everything I had learned to the St.Edmund’s building committee and with their approval I proceeded with the design.

Dad's model of St. Edmund's Church

Dad’s model of St. Edmund’s Church

For Part III Not a Coincidence tap here.


Part I of III

The story of St. Edmund’s Church is significant in Dad’s career and in the history of American architecture–though he might not want me to make that claim.  I can though because I’m not him.

Dad redesigned the house which was to be the new model for a subdivision–a contemporary home. The Milwaukee Journal picked up on the story of the contemporary house and did a feature article on it in the Sunday edition.

There was an architectural magazine at the time called House and Home. They picked up on the newspaper article and included it in their news items and made reference to the house with an article in their magazine. This led to one of the Journal writer’s contacting Dad. He ended up designing the writer’s house in Mequon.

So now he had his second house which led to a third — another Journal employee also hired him to design a house in Brookfield. Then another employee hired him to design his house in a subdivision near HWY 83 and I94. Because they were all connected with the Journal, the stories tended to get picked up from time to time and published in their paper so it brought him some publicity. 

Dad had opened his office in 1955. By 1956, he was the first architect to design a hyperbolic paraboloid, thin shelled concrete roof in the United States. The design was for St. Edmund’s Church.

St. Edmund’s was founded in 1947 by a small group of Christian laity and clergy who had been meeting in temporary facilities in the village of Elm Grove, Wisconsin. Within a decade the group had raised enough money to construct their own building on land which had been donated to the congregation by members of their community on Watertown Plank Road in the village. Exciting things were brewing.  –Debbie

Dad's first office

Dad’s first office was in the back of Tom Trump Food Company on Wilson Dr. off
Capital. He and Tom shared Paul Klein Leather Company’s secretary which was next store.

The owner of Woodlam, which furnished the laminated beams for the church I had designed in Franklin, was Don Osenga. He had become good friends with the house client, Jack Schuldes, who was developing the subdivision we had discussed earlier in Brookfield. I remember so well Dolores had invited them all over for dinner which was a little tight in the kitchen of our upper duplex on Humboldt but it was a wonderful evening. It was Don Osenga who was on the building committee for St. Edmond’s Church in Elm Grove and had arranged for me to be interviewed there.

Mom preparing dinner in the upper duplex on Humboldt

Mom preparing dinner in the upper duplex on Humboldt Ave. with baby #3 on the way

I was selected as the architect and eventually designed a very nice but rather typical contemporary church for them using laminated arches and beams.

The St. Edmund’s committee reviewed the design as it developed and approved it. After the committee meeting they had a coffee and cake gathering in the fellowship hall of their existing building. During this time, I got into some discussion on one of my favorite subjects which is architectural history.

I explained about Gothic Architecture with its incredible structural system and sculptured art forms. I explained that the two facets — art and structure — were totally integrated into one unit, but that the artwork was always subservient to the structure. As was true of all periods of architecture, the buildings designed for worship up to this point in history were always the most advanced structural scheme known to man. I pointed out how each of the elements of the Gothic structure had structural meaning and was necessary for its stability. This was the Gothic period’s way to express the inexpressible yet real understanding of the mystery of Jesus. By this time, all the committee members had gotten interested in my discussion.

They asked, “What would Gothic be today, following the description you just gave?”

This was the time that Soviet Russia had succeeded in putting an object into space known as Sputnik. As I recall, it was only a basketball sized object with radios contained in it so it could communicate with earth. This of course, was a tremendous achievement for science, fostering a great deal of discussion in all parts of society but certainly most prevalent in the church. There were critics of the church who said that Sputnik didn’t find any heaven in space, implying or stating that Christian teaching was now disproved.

Some of the committee asked me,“How would we make an expression merging science and faith today as was done in the Gothic period?”

“Well, I’m not sure but I’ve been reading about thin-shelled concrete where large structural spans can be developed based on the shape of the form instead of its mass.”

“Can’t we have something out of thin-shelled concrete?” The committee then asked.

“I really don’t know enough about it.” I responded. “I’ll have to do some reading, look into it  and get back to you.”

So they all agreed to put my ‘very nice but rather typical contemporary’ design aside until I could look into thin-shelled concrete and see if I could find an engineer that was familiar with it.

for Part II Concept of Mystery tap here

The Heart Calls Out to Patience

And so the trail-blazing career of my father begins — William P. Wenzler Architects, established in 1955.  It’s been a bit of a climb getting to this point.  There are so many stories to share and my dad is a man of detail.  He doesn’t miss a thing.  This attribute made him both a great architect and father.  To get the full picture of who he was as an architect, you’ll get a picture of his most complex building project  — his family.  He was an architect with a wife and four children — an American family.


My family 1976
Front: Dad, Mom
Back John, Me, Joan, Ed and his wife Georgine

It’s not my intent to throw myself or anyone under the bus but let’s face it, people take a lot longer than buildings to complete.  Consider this:

The daughter of an accomplished musician by the age of 10,

Mom playing at church.  The organ no less, with two keyboards and foot pedals.

Mom playing at church as a girl — the organ no less, with two keyboards and foot pedals!

and an eagle scout by 16,

Dad with buddies

Dad with buddies

wanted to be an actress.  Everything she experienced was something she would use on stage one day.  She organized the neighborhood kids and charged a quarter admission for her garage show productions.  Saturday was her acting class.  Improvisation.  It was the best part of her week.  She preferred her acting class to her piano lessons which were also improvisations of sorts because she never practiced.

Her teacher’s name was Mrs. Brown.  Her father questioned Mrs. Brown, when they first met, if she had a lovely daughter, referring to the popular Herman Hermits song of the day,  Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.  Mrs. Brown didn’t answer him.  She didn’t know what he was talking about.  She would patiently guide her pupil through her lessons, counting and instructing in the proper fingering, all the while telling her pupil that she was doing well.  Afterwards, the daughter would boast to her father that she got a star and hadn’t even practiced.  “Just think how good you would be if you did practice,” was his response.

Mom was patient

Mom was patient

The Conservatory where she studied was filled with serious students.  For her piano recital, the teachers were lined up in chairs on both sides of the entryway to the auditorium.  Chandeliers glistened over an audience in front of a stage filled with two concert-sized Steinways.  The students filled the rows closest to the stage, awaiting their turns to play.  The girl’s parents and grandparents were present.

She went over her music in her head as she sat there.  The longer she waited, the less she remembered.  When her turn came, she couldn’t remember a single note.  Hoping it would come to her as she made her way to the stage; she sat down on the bench, placed her hands on the keys and played Fur Elise, furiously fast, stopping cold halfway through.  She started over but didn’t make it as far the second time.  She tried a third time, failed, then rose and went back to her seat.  Afterwards, her grandparents gave her a fancy pen and pencil set.  The girl told her mother she wanted to start voice lessons.

When she became a Girl Scout, she only earned the badges her troop earned as a group.  She pinned her badges to her sash with safety pins even though each member of the troop had earned the sewing badge.  When she had to sell Girl Scout cookies, she set up shop in the family den and waited for people to come to her.  When her parents got tired of the cookies sitting around, her dad hitched up a horse to a buggy and road her and the cookies around the subdivision near their farm with the goats following them.

If truth be told, she lived mostly in her head and was a bit of a loner.  Shy.  She liked staying home on Friday nights when the house was quiet, playing the piano, singing and listening to Rachmaninoff with her cat as audience.

Her parents modeled that hard work and diligence paid off.  It would take her a long time to learn the same.

A true heart takes a lifetime to develop

The heart calls out to patience.

Her parents taught her that becoming a good human being, as guided by the Lord, was the most important career aspiration she could have — by far outweighing any decision regarding vocation.  It would prove to be the steepest and most arduous climb of all — demanding unending perseverance and eternal patience from those who cared about her as well as from herself.

Yes, obviously the girl was me.  I know at one time or another, we all felt as though we won the black sheep award in our family.  If I were to ask my mom which of us caused her and dad the most grief, I can hear her voice as clear as a bell saying,

“Oh heavens!  You each shared that award equally!”

Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right.”  Proverbs 20:11

A Firm Of His Own

It has always been special to me that Dad started his office the same year I was born.  He designed my birth announcement

Birth Announcement

My birth announcement

which read:  “An original creation” and referenced Psalm 128:1-4.  (“Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways.  You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours.  Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.  Thus is the one blessed who fears the Lord.”)  This verse was also the inscription on their wedding bands which they had made later in life because Dad lost his original ring and Mom’s was stolen.

The flip side of the announcement read:  the second project completed by the firm of  Wenzler & Wenzler (Architect & Builder) — Deborah Ann

side 2

side 2

Specifications for material & labor: ground breaking – Oct ‘54; completion – June 22 ‘55; (2 weeks. 2 days ahead of schedule); weight – 7 lb 3 oz; length – 19 in (same as Eddie). 

If you aren’t an architect you might not have a total understanding of what a ‘spec’ — as they call it — is.  It’s the contract document defining all the methods and materials needed to complete the project.  In the beginning, there is a sketch which is a concept of the whole building.  At this point, Dad would already have all the necessary methods — plumbing, heating and electricity — in mind.  He could award a general contractor who would oversee the plumbing, heating and electricity contractors or he could choose to award a prime general contractor who did it all. 

I find it humorous that I am compared to a building project — but then after a moment’s thought, not so much.  We are each building projects of sorts, aren’t we?  I imagine there was some original design concept of the entire “building” and like Dad, it also defined from the start all “methods and materials” needed to complete the job.  I imagine also there was only one prime general contractor needed to oversee everything.  Like Dad says,

“the sketch of God’s universe was in His mind — He spoke it and it came to be.” –Debbie

The United Church of Christ in Menomonee Falls had an architect who had drawn up some plans for an addition they wanted.  But he had died before they had built it.  The specifications had never been written and the pastor of the church, who knew me from youth fellowship, called me directly to ask if I’d write it.  I told him I’d enjoy doing it but would have to talk to my boss at Brust and Brust to get their permission.

I told Brust and Brust that I would work on it nights — on my own time. I checked the drawings that had been done and they were lousy.  I explained to the church building committee that the building was actually two feet wider than was shown on the drawings and the only way I could precede was to redraw it completely.

I went back to Brust and Brust and told them it was going to be more than a specification — that I would have to redesign the building.  So I asked if I could work half-time.  They said it would be okay as long as it didn’t interfere with my job.

In a few days the chief draftsman heard about it.  He came to me and said,

“Wenzler, you work here full-time or you’re out.”

Well, that put me into my own architectural business.

So in 1955 I started my office in the back bedroom of our upper duplex.

Home office

Home office

Ed was born by then — having been conceived on Route 66 to California.

Samsung 062713a 211

Mom with her firstborn

1955 was a big year — Dolores became pregnant with Debbie and told me, “You get yourself an office.  I need that back bedroom.”

Ed wasn't too thrilled with my arrival but we became great friends.

Ed wasn’t too thrilled with my arrival at first but we became great friends.

I completed the job for the church in Menomonee Falls named St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.  Word got around to other churches that I had been asked to be interviewed for another church in Franklin.  It was an interesting job because it was in a rural setting.   When they did their fundraising they got donations in dollars and hours of labor with specific categories in the building industry.  They had a lot of concrete workers so I designed the septic tank out of poured concrete.  I ended up using up all the hours they had pledged. I designed it with laminated beams, furnished by Woodlam in Waukesha.   The owner of Woodlam was on the building committee at St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church in Elm Grove.  He arranged for me to be interviewed for their new church.

A firm of his own

A firm of his own


Job Remembered But Not Seen

Building a career that is based on integrity rather than ego is a long trudge and narrow climb upward — demanding a careful balance of temperance and tenacity all the way.  –Debbie

Road trip

Road trip

The pastor from our church, Grace Reformed, had taken a mission assignment in Los Angeles and asked if Dolores and I would come so I could design a church for them.  I got a leave of absence from Siewert who was several weeks behind in my pay.  I told him I needed my money.

“Why is that?” He asked.

“We have to drive to California.”

He managed to pay me so we could take the trip on Route 66.

Road Trip

On Route 66

I designed the church for them and found a local architect to do the working drawings and oversee construction since I was registered only in Illinois.

When we returned to Milwaukee, I went back to Siewert’s, However, I was not welcomed back because Siewert believed that I had a multimillion job on the side, which wasn’t true.  The house I had designed for my classmate and her husband had been designed to serve as a model home for the subdivision the husband was developing.  F.W. Dodge took the value of the model home and multiplied it by the number of lots in the subdivision and came up with the multimillion dollar total which would never happen.  So now I needed a job.

I found out about an opening at Brust and Brust.  The principals were two brothers and it was a much larger firm than Siewert.  I interviewed with John Brust and heard back from them that I didn’t get the job because they said I was “too filled with piss and vinegar”.  So I down-sold myself and they let me come back to talk to them. They reconsidered and hired me.

The first assignment they gave me was a church job that they had already submitted more than 10 designs concepts for — all rejected by the priest.  They told me everything they knew about it — I never met the client and I’m not sure I even went to look at the site.  What I did know was that it was at the end of a city block, giving three public exposures.  I sketched up a design, the principals presented it to the priest, and he accepted it. They wanted me to stay on and do the working drawings.  So here I was, just out of school and suddenly responsible for this significant job.

The principal would stop by my desk every day to see how I was doing and ask how long it was going to take me.  I said to him, “My dad always told me, a good job is remembered long after speed is forgotten.”  I was doing the best job I knew how.

They eventually assigned another draftsman to work with me and we got the job out.  I put the alter in the center of the church and you could enter on two sides.  It was built out of lannon stone, the same material my grandfather had used for the street curbs. I didn’t even go to see my the completed project.  It wasn’t until many years later that I actually saw my design.  It was Brust and Brust’s job.

Look for the beauty

Look for the beauty

Staying Afloat

As time passed, Dad saved several hundred dollars to buy a canoe of his own but he ended up buying an engagement ring instead.  It was good thing that he had fallen in love with the water before he fell in love with Mom or he would have been sunk without enough money saved to buy the ring.  –Debbie

After we were married and living in Champagne, it wasn’t long before we realized we were very tight on money. So I went to the office at the School of Architecture to talk to the secretary about how to apply for a student loan. She was a great staff assistant and knew almost everyone in the entire school by name.

“For whom?” she asked.

“Me. We got married and we’re a little short.”

I remember this like yesterday–she said, “Mr. Wenzler, you don’t need a loan, you can have a scholarship!”

Sometime in late fall, we thought the bicycle was nice, but that a car would be better.

Mom and Dad's transportation

Mom and Dad’s transportation

One of the architectural students had a 1939 Chevy for sale and we managed to buy that.  So now we had a car when we wanted to go to Milwaukee and would usually take along another one of the architectural students with us.

In the spring of that year, I was in my last academic class which was concrete structures.  It was taught by Professor Morgan who had a great deal of experience in actual concrete design. This was before the age of calculators and computers so all my calculations were done by slide-rule.

I remember one of the lectures that spring when he made an announcement that the physical plant was looking for someone to serve as a field representative on some of the University jobs. He said if anyone was interested, to contact the physical plant.  I sat there and waited a few minutes–I remember I was sitting in sort of the center of the class–then got up and excused myself. I went right over to the physical plant and got the job.They gave me some of their smaller jobs to oversee and I learned quite a bit about overseeing a construction project.

Professor Morgan always finished the end of his semester with a volunteer attendance week in which he would explain what life meant from his perspective. He talked about his belief in the Bible and Jesus Christ using graphs, charts and technical data to support it.

Once I started working halftime, our finances greatly improved. It wasn’t too long before we went to the bank to get a loan to buy a 1948 Fastback Chevy Coop.

2nd car

The Chevy

I was a senior in my last semester when I got a call from Hugo Haeuser’s son, saying his dad had died and they had some jobs in the works–particularly a church in Illinois. So I applied to take the exam in Illinois and flunked two parts. No one at Haueser’s office was registered–they were keeping the firm open waiting for me to get my license and now made the decision to close the firm.

I graduated in January of 1952 and got registered as an architect that same year in Illinois.  Wisconsin wouldn’t give me credit for my experience while I was still in school — it had to be after graduation.  I knew the draft would be after me so our plan was to have a child right away but, well, that didn’t work out either.

So I needed three years of work experience, I didn’t have a job and furthermore, now I was subject to the draft.  I went for my physical and I flunked that too because of my asthma and a heart murmur.  I remember clearly, stopping to get gas for my car. I had a credit card but thought–here I am, no job and not registered, how will I pay this off?  I had been approached by a classmate from Riverside and her husband who asked me to design their house but I really needed a steady job. My Dad knew that the architect Al Siewert was looking for a draftsman to add to his staff. So I got an interview with Siewert. In the process, I told him about the house my classmate wanted me to design. He hired me and said it was okay to go ahead with the design as long as it didn’t interfere with my work. So we stayed afloat.

Building Character

Like my parents, my Dad’s parents had a huge influence on who he was to become.  Like mine also, both were active in the Church.  His dad could take shorthand because he was trained as a stenographer so he was immediately asked to be secretary of the church council because he could do the minutes.  His mom was leader in the women’s group – she loved poetry and planning worship services.  Based on their faith following Jesus, their character and integrity modeled honesty and truth.  These qualities were mirrored in his teachers at vacation Bible school, Sunday school, and at Fratney Street School.

He would sit on the floor in front of the “console” radio and listen to the series of after-school radio programs.  The Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong, Tom Mix, the Shadow (the weed of crime bears bitter fruit – the Shadow knows mmmrrraahh), etc., all bore the same message – good over evil.

When their church decided to sponsor a boy scout troop, his dad and older brother moved from troop 78 at Fratney to Troop 14 at Grace Church, and his dad became scout master.  An active scout master, Tom Terry, who was not a member of the church, became assistant scout master.  Tom had a vast background in scouting and made a tremendous impact in leading the troop. 

Dad learned how to paddle and sail a canoe at Boy Scout Camp Indian Mound Reservation.  One of the committee men in his scout troop had an old town wooden canoe in his garage.  Dad happened to notice it needed a new canvas.  The man wanted it for his son but Dad asked him if he could re-canvas it, would he let him use it until his son grew up.  The man agreed.  This was when Dad lived on Humboldt so it was easy to carry the boat from the garage to the Milwaukee River.  He would tie the paddles to the thwarts, turn the boat over so it would rest on his shoulders and take it down to the river.

Dad and his canoe

Dad and his canoe

He liked to get it out when things started to thaw in the spring because there would be big sheets of ice on the river to maneuver around and a strong current from Estabrook Park.  –Debbie

Dad on the Milwaukee River

Dad on the Milwaukee River


Your grandpa asked other men to serve as leaders of the troop and, incidentally, they all knew how to play Sheepshead.  After we were all in our tents at night, the leaders would gather around a makeshift table and play Sheepshead.

I learned a lot more than canoeing at Boy Scouts.  The first level is tenderfoot, followed by second class and first class when enough proficiency is achieved.  As you accumulated merit badges, you could advance to Star, Life, and finally, Eagle.  The members of the troop took the oath and law seriously and tried to live by it.  Here’s the Oath:

On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.

And here’s the Law:

A Scout is —

  • Trustworthy,
  • Loyal,
  • Helpful,
  • Friendly,
  • Courteous,
  • Kind,
  • Obedient,
  • Cheerful,
  • Thrifty,
  • Brave,
  • Clean,
  • and Reverent.

So the first part of the Oath is duty to God; the last part of the Law is to be reverent.  Lastly, the motto:

Be prepared!

At this point, I was still physically quite short but even so I was elected by the hawk patrol to be the leader.  I very well remember one of our camp-outs when my asthma flared up. When that happened I had a product called Asthmador which was a powder you’d dump on a plate and then light with a match.  It would sizzle and burn and give off a great amount of smoke.  Needless to say, my patrol wasn’t overjoyed with my treatment.  Recently, I ran into one of the members of our patrol at my brother’s funeral and the first thing he said to me was, “Do you remember that stuff you used to burn for your asthma?”  I found out later it was a hallucinogen so at times I was slightly high.  Maybe the whole patrol was too as a result, I don’t know.

For two summers I went to the Boy Scout Camp at Indian Mound.  The camp had counselors for most of the merit badges and it wasn’t long before I made Eagle Scout when I was 16.  I remember so well the court of honor which was held at Atwater School.  It was the custom to have your mother pin the Eagle Scout badge on you.  My mother came to the court of honor to pin my badge on me.

One summer, I was accepted to participate in the Eagle Scout Forestry Camp at Boulder Junction in Vilas County, Northern Wisconsin.  We would be assigned to work in the tree nursery at State Forestry Tree Nursery in Boulder Junction every morning.  The first afternoon we were trained in participating in fighting forest fires. There were several small fires we were involved in and I remember one major one where the state employees plowed a “fire line” ahead of the fire.  Our job was to keep the fire from spreading across the fire line.  This camp gave the state a substantial increase in manpower in case of forest fire.

The next year, I was accepted again to participate in the Eagle Scout camp.  I was asked to become the driver of the stake truck (a big flat truck with steaks around it) that the camp used.  The road into the camp was just gravel with grass and weeds.  I was careful to not use the same path every time I drove it – the result being, instead of having two lane ruts, I had a very smooth, flat drive.  I was given special recognition at the end of the two weeks for the way I handled driving the truck — the leadership had noticed.

And So the Wind Blows

I’m back home in Milwaukee where my cat walks across the keyboard when I type and then settles into my lap so that I have to balance my iPad on one knee. Her name is Rose.  She cries to go out one minute and cries to come in the next. She’s a talker and a walker–she walks along when we walk our dog Sam.

Rose in lap

Rose in lap

I miss the big deck at the cabin under the wide span of sky so I’m getting the flowers planted that have been sitting on our back deck taking up space and patiently waiting for me to settle their crowded roots into the soil. I miss the tall golden carpet of sea grass which hides wildflowers and assorted insects, but I like our little patio. I miss the gull calls and crane whoops, but listen to the assorted chirps and warbles coming from overhead and all around me. I miss the big windows that extend across the front of the cabin facing the water exposing the light, so I’ve lifted the protective shades and opened the filmy curtains in the room where my desk sits.

BackyardThe wind blows through the trees here too. It creates moving shadows across the pavement instead of the grass and sand, but it still forces me to look into my own shadows and wonder. I wonder today how it is that we lose our mothers gracefully. Lose anyone gracefully. Loss runs deep like love runs deep. Both words start with an L and both words have four letters, insinuating that there’s some similarity between the two. Both can be covered up for a while but inevitably need the exposure of light and air, if not the wind, to come into their fullness.

My relationship with my own mother was deep and complex so it makes sense that time would need to pass after her death to begin to really unveil the depth of what we experienced together. Mother and daughter. Confidants and friends. Soul mates of sorts. It was a gift to have her as my mom on this earth but she wasn’t mine to keep.

I bought a copy of the book Mothers and Daughters by Maggie Scarf when I was in my twenties as a means to better understand what it was that went on between us. I never read it. I meant to, I just never got around to it. Maybe I didn’t need to read that book to understand Mom and me.

Mom was the one person in my life, who in one word on the phone, could read my mood.

“Debs, you’re tired.”

“What is it Debbie, you sound stressed.”

“Deborah Ann?  What are you hiding?”

My hurt, Mom. Why did you have to suffer like you did? Why did God let you suffer so much pain? The one thing that helps give me peace now is that you don’t hurt anymore.  No more grief. I don’t know which was worse for you–the pain in your bones from the cancer or the pain in your heart from the loss of your first born.

I think I might have to have to change the title of this blog to Sundays with Dad and Musings with Mom. Or not. It’s all entwined together–our lives, our losses our love.

2011 Oct 18 Camera Download 059

A Bat and Other Distractions

I’ve become greedy with my time. I admit it. I’ve never experienced such blissful solitude as I have these last days on the Island. I find I need little else than hours to think and write without distractions. That’s hard to find in the life I lead. I just found out that family will be arriving here on the Island tonight and more relatives are visiting at home where there will be a house with four girls and a guest dog visiting when I return. Seems I can’t escape.

Being on the Island is an existence diametrically opposed to the one I have known all my life as a performer and most recently as an executive director. There’s no reason to do any of that without people around, other artists, audiences, students, staff and peers. I find myself craving this quiet like I crave coffee in the morning, a glass of wine at night, chocolate in the afternoon, popcorn, grilled burgers in summer and hearty stews in winter.

The news of the nephews arrival with wives, toddler and two dogs in tow–though I love them all deeply–leaves me feeling claustrophobic. I felt it at the beginning of this trip when my nieces popped in.  I needed some time to myself and now I’ve gotten used to it. Talking takes energy. Listening takes concentration. I get fatigued. But it’s not my cabin to claim–though it feels partly like it is. I talked Dad into taking down the for sale sign. I built the path to the water. I plant the flowers and herbs each year, clean out the shelves and toss the outdated food. I make sure Mom’s things are put back where they belong and help Dad repair what others have damaged. I keep the black ants from invading and destroying the place for crying out loud. Do I sound resentful?  Well, I s’pose. Selfish?  Maybe. Okay, I’ll get over it.

I wanted to be here when the rose opened. But maybe it’s perfect as it is–leaving just as it’s ready to come to full blossom. A symbol of how one should always live one’s life and that now, with that gift, it’s time I take my leave.

Rose bud

Rose bud

But not before I tell you about Belfry.

Samsung 062713b 002Belfry is the Bat that lived in the umbrella on the deck. He tucked himself up under the wooden supports so you couldn’t see him. You had to look carefully to know he was there.  Last summer when we opened it, he fell splat on the hard wood and laid there for a bit–like you or I would have. I thought he was dead. I cared. Just as I was ready to get the shovel to bury him he got up and flew off. I smiled. Belfry. Good for you. We didn’t see him again though. When Dad opened up the umbrella this summer he said he wondered if the bat was still there. I said, no, he had flown off last summer and had not come back. It took a while to get the cords untangled to lift the big blue wing of a thing but we did and there he hung–Belfry–upside down with his little eyes staring at us.

Belfry the bat

Belfry the bat

I went outside this morning and stood looking at a small patch of daisies. Such innocent  flowers, growing and blooming unaided by human hands.

Samsung 041I heard a buzz and felt a swoop over my head. It was Belfry. We share this space just fine. Bats usually travel in packs. Belfry likes his solitude. Like me. He does his thing and I do mine. I wish it were that easy with people. Wait a second.

I can’t believe it. The rose is opening before my eyes.Truly amazing. I told you this place is a little piece of heaven.


It is indeed time to go–with a grateful heart–and let someone else come and enjoy the magnificence. Goodbye little bat, goodbye little rose, goodbye sweet cabin. You’ve been great company and I’ll see you next time.